Archive for February, 2010

I bought turnips last week. This may not seem noteworthy, but it was; I hate turnips.

Or, more accurately, I used to hate them. Even added to stews in pieces-too-small-to-taste or mashed into submission with perfectly good potatoes, I could always detect that distinctive sweet, yet nasty, turnip flavor–and it always gave me the willies. Ditto for rutabagas, which are just larger, meaner buddies of the turnip.

My aversion to turnips and their kin, along with my yet more active dislike for parsnips, and my at best lukewarm relationship with beets, posed some problems for a gal trying to get through the winter living off the fat of her neighbor’s land. In other words, it made it hard to eat local food in January.

For years, when the Brunswick farmer’s markets closed for the season, I would, in good conscience, all but abandon my efforts to purchase local produce. Through the bright summer and deep into the fall, I had happily fed my family on the delights of Maine farms: fresh greens, dazzling tomatoes and smoky eggplants. By December it was time to quietly return to the supermarket and resume my cold-weather affairs with out-of-season South American asparagus and zucchinis.

Then, two things happened to challenge my illicit winter veggie romances. The first was this: other people, tougher people, (you know, people who eat turnips) succeeded in bringing a winter farmer’s market to Brunswick. In a rare example of how not everything is going downhill, the number of farmer’s markets nationwide is growing, up 13% in the last year alone.

We are discovering the benefits of buying local food–benefits that spill bountifully into our communities, our economies, our landscapes, our soils, our waters, and our health.

Okay, great. Yet I couldn’t help but picture our new winter market, tucked picturesquely into the vast timbered halls of Fort Andross, humming with wholesome activity, and filled to the rafters with turnips, beets, and parsnips. I didn’t want to go.

But now my conscience started to twinge. Eating locally is one of the single most important actions we can take to heal the planet. I’ve written entire articles about the soul-redeeming glory of eating food from next door. Well, that may be fine when there are fresh green beans next door, but turnips?

The second thing that happened was that I started buying farm shares. A farm share entitles you to a portion of a specific farm’s produce for the upcoming season. One week you might get fat cucumbers, spicy arugula, and piles of tomatoes. Another week you’ll have brimming bags of baby bok choys, striped squashes, and barely containable gangly green kales.

Toward the end of the year, though, you will inevitably have to face the dreaded appearance of the turnip family. It’s true you could leave the little buggers at the farm, or chuck them out the window on the way home, but personally I could never bring myself to do that. For one, I paid for them.

More importantly, however, I felt a responsibility to like them; indeed, on some level I believed in them. These guys were, after all, among the crops that used to get people through Maine winters. So, every fall I dutifully took them home and stuffed them into the back of the fridge.

Now, another winter has rolled around, bringing days of early dark, low light, and cold fingers. The outdoor markets are closed. I peer tentatively into the back of the fridge and yes, it’s filled with turnips, lots of them, and they are just fine, thank you.

I take a deep breath and I make a huge pot of turnip soup. My family, bless their hearts, say, “YUM!” at the first bite. Of course, I don’t believe them. True, this soup has browned onions and butter; it has good homemade chicken stock; as well, it has pan-fried croutons with parmesan cheese, but in its pale heart it is turnip all the way down.

I take a small sip. And, it is, in a word, fabulous. All those years of making myself eat little bits of poorly camouflaged turnips had worked some inexplicable rooty magic. I had learned to like them.

This is a more profound development than it seems. It’s one thing to try to buy from local sources the foods you already enjoy. But, the idea that you might learn to like something or that you should try to learn to like something – primarily because it’s a staple local crop – is, well, radical. I doubt I would have managed it on my own.

By committing to buy a good chunk of my food directly from farmers, I had made a contract with local food–the terms of which were dictated by our climate and our soils. This is what can be grown, fished, and fattened on Maine’s lands and waters. Bon appetit.

The weekend after my victory soup I held my head high and went to the winter farmer’s market because now, heck, I could eat turnips with the best of them. There were turnips, to be sure, but also spinach, red cabbages, yellow and purple carrots, heaps of buttery potatoes, cheeses, meats and fresh seafood on ice, pastries and breads, tarts and jams, kale and leeks. There was music and mittens, yarn and sheepskins, honeys and soaps. I’m becoming a regular. I buy turnips.

In these last few months I have also, I admit, gone to the supermarket and bought heads of scandalously cheap lettuce and boxes of clementines from places golden and far away. But for the most part I’ve been happy as a Maquoit Bay clam, with nary a lustful glance at the Mexican broccoli.

Now, if I could just learn to like parsnips.

The Brunswick winter Farmer’s Market at Fort Andross is open on Saturdays from 9:00 AM to 12:00 PM.

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Here’s a dramatic demonstration you can do with any audience of a few hundred adults. Ask them to stand up if they walked to school when they were kids. Then, ask them to sit back down if their kids walk to school today. It’s like the wave they do at ball games: everyone stands up, then everyone sits down.

Go back just a few decades and most of us got to school powered by a bowl of oatmeal rather than by Saudi Arabian oil.

My father walked to school in Brooklyn, down the zebra striped blocks of sun and shadow under the elevated West End subway tracks. My mother pedaled her one-speed above the frigid waters of Flensborg Fjord, a Baltic Sea inlet along the Danish-German border.

A generation later, my sister and I tumbled down a hill in our Boston neighborhood to a local K-8 elementary school. We walked, ran, and wandered a mile each way to high school.

I don’t remember whether, day to day, I liked those walks or hated them. Instead, I remember being stopped on the way to school one morning by the most magnificent smell. Dark, rich, and musky, I followed it down a driveway to a paradise of Concord grapes on thick vines, warm in the sun. I remember the kind owner coming out to say I could sample a few. I remember running off, mortified.

I remember buying mini eclairs at the little bakery, squashed into a gangly intersection, between the laundromat and the CVS drugstore. I remember poking sticks into ice puddles and loving rainstorms. I remember a bully chasing me. I remember my town and the streets and independence.

Today, only one in seven kids walks to school, while more than half are driven there in private vehicles. Fully a quarter of morning commuters are parents taking kids to school. It’s hard to see how this is anything but a negative development for children’s health, for our communities, and for the environment.

We know lack of exercise is helping drive childhood obesity rates to alarming levels. It’s not that in the good old days we cared a lot about exercise. Indeed, my father, from behind the steering wheel, would spot a jogger and say with a dry grin, “Can’t I bump that one, just a little?” But when the walk to school was two miles round trip, our attitudes about exercise were less relevant.

We know that asthma is severely exacerbated by pollution from motor vehicles.

We know there is a pressing need to reduce our emissions of climate changing gasses and we know that gasoline burned in cars is one of the worst culprits.

So, then, we try to coax people out of their cars and onto the sidewalks. We spend millions of dollars on national programs aimed at getting more children to walk to school. We build in-town schools. We put in bike lanes. We hire crossing guards.

We tell people that the chances of their child being snatched by a stranger while walking to school are far (far, far) smaller than the chances of them being killed in a motor vehicle accident while being driven there. Our school principals even dress up as bananas to promote more active lifestyles (that happened last week).

And then, if we live in Brunswick, we reconfigure our schools to make it well nigh impossible for younger children to be walked to school. Come again?

Until recently, a child growing up in Brunswick attended three schools: a K-5, the middle school and the high school. The result was that in a run of the mill household with, say, two children two years apart, siblings would be in the same building for seven years of their tenure in Brunswick schools.

The upcoming switch to two district schools, each serving half the town’s kindergarten through second graders, along with a town wide 3-5 school, would cut sibling’s together time to just five years. Now, a new proposal might drop it down to a meager four years.

In other words, from the time a child starts kindergarten, through the time she graduates high school, she will be with her two-year younger sibling for just four years.

The latest proposal entails putting all pre-kindergarten and kindergarten kids in one building, with all first- and second-graders in another building, two miles away.

It should go without saying that two small children cannot simultaneously be walked to different schools by a single adult (unless said adult has even more super powers than the average parent).

So much for walking.

Parents will still be able to drive their kids to multiple buildings every morning and every afternoon, but the extra stops will significantly increase carbon emissions, worsen asthma, clog the streets with traffic, cost parents time and money, and, make them completely nuts to boot.

Maybe they should put their kids on the bus. Well, maybe they should, but many parents are concerned about the length of the bus ride: 30-50 minutes for most Brunswick kids.

One wonders, then, what effect the proposed grade reconfigurations might have on bus travel times. The school department currently spends well over $1.5 million annually on transportation. Even a small increase in bus times would incur significant additional costs–costs that will recur year after year, and that will only rise with fuel prices. It will also result in more parents driving their kids to school.

Given the high stakes, the impacts on busing and driving should be carefully modeled as part of the decision making process.

The latest school proposal will entail substantial renovations to existing buildings; these changes will be expensive to undo should we ever come to our senses. With this action, we cement into the fabric of our town, into the bricks and mortar, our lack of commitment to the very changes we need to make to preserve a high quality of life for our children on this quavering planet.

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